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  Sierra Magazine
  January/February 2005
Table of Contents
Better Homes and Garbage
Green From the Ground Up
Hey Mr. Green
Interview: Shoshana Berger
Fat Cities
Green Eye for the Conventional Guy
Let's Talk
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
Sierra Club Bulletin
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Lay of the Land

The Ring-Tone of the Wild | Storm Swarm | VICTORY! |
For the Record |The ABCs of Sprawl | Bold Strokes |
10 Dumbest Consumer Goods | Kids, Go Play in the Street! |
Updates | A Plague on all Houses

The Ring-Tone of the Wild
Cell-phone towers sprout in the national parks

Tourists flocking to Yellowstone's Old Faithful may also see the park's nearby cell tower.
Ahh, the sounds of wilderness: Wind rushing through spruce, a burbling mountain stream. And the William Tell Overture? With the blessing of the National Park Service, cell phones--and their infrastructure--are making their way into the wilds. Already at least 30 wireless towers have sprouted in the parks, and more are coming soon.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened the way for the cellular invasion, compelling federal land managers to consider allowing cell towers on their lands. There's no national policy on where towers can be placed, however, so the decisions are left to individual park superintendents. Some are swayed by the argument that increased cell-phone coverage can contribute to park safety. Others may be tempted by perks: According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Yellowstone National Park personnel were offered 70 phones and free minutes by two cell companies that were subsequently allowed to install towers--and then their lease fees were applied to salaries and other programs in the cash-strapped park.

Today, Yellowstone has five cell towers, including a 100-foot-high one within view of Old Faithful. Yellowstone officials have treated the area "with all the care of a strip mall," says PEER board member Frank Buono, a former Park Service manager. "Park managers will easily succumb if they can see this revenue stream coming into the park," he adds.

In addition to Yellowstone, towers have risen--without public notification--in Grand Canyon, Everglades, and Yosemite National Parks. When the public is given a heads-up, officials get an earful. In May, a proposal for three cell towers along a scenic road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park caused an outcry. "It is one of the worst ideas we have ever heard," Tennessee's Senator Lamar Alexander (R) and Representative John Duncan Jr. (R) wrote to Park Service director Fran Mainella. "The [park] ought to be a place where a person can go and not worry about rounding the trail and running into someone yakking on the cell phone with his or her stockbroker." Within weeks, the plans were dropped. --Reed McManus

Storm Swarm
Are hurricanes our fault?

In 2004, four hurricanes pounded a single state (Florida) for the first time since 1886, causing $20 billion to $40 billion in property damage and killing 130 people. In Haiti, the casualties were in the thousands. Ten typhoons swept Japan, more than ever previously recorded.

In the past ten years, says Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, global sea level has risen by an inch and a quarter. Partly due to melting glaciers, most of the rise is attributed to expansion as the oceans warm. Higher temperatures, in turn, pump more water vapor into the air, fueling more hurricanes. "The environment in which hurricanes form is changing," Trenberth says. "The evidence strongly suggests more intense storms and risk of greater flooding events." Seven of the last ten years, he notes, have recorded more hurricanes than normal.

Some hurricane forecasters attribute the increase to natural cycles. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, disagrees. While no particular storm can be tied to global warming, he warns "three parts of the hydrological system are changing: Water is warming, water vapor is rising, and ice is melting." The 2004 hurricanes, he says, "are consistent with the changes we know to be associated with climate change."

While Washington has yet to take global warming seriously, a company that's paying some of the bills is plenty concerned. Insurance giant Swiss Re was hit with $550 million in losses from the four Florida hurricanes. Matthias Weber, senior vice president of the company's U.S. division, says Swiss Re has a big stake in educating governments and the public. "We cannot wait until uncertainty turns to certainty," he says, "because then it will be too late." --Paul Rauber

Bridger-Teton off the auction block

Wyoming conservationists and sportsmen didn't have to speculate on what natural-gas drilling would do to the state's Bridger-Teton National Forest. All they had to do was look to the nearby Upper Green River Basin. Intensive drilling near Pinedale has turned key winter range for elk, deer, and antelope into an industrial landscape, with 3-acre natural-gas wellheads spaced every 20 acres. (There's now talk of going down to every 10 acres, or even 5.) Already, oil rigs and screaming compressors are threatening to block wildlife migration routes to and from the Greater Yellowstone area.

So when the Forest Service offered up, without soliciting public comment, a huge, 175,000-acre lease-sale on the Bridger-Teton--including 92,000 acres of roadless wildland--both environmentalists and hunters hit the roof. They pointed out that the sale relied on an environmental assessment that was years out of date, which failed to account for the reintroduction of wolves to the area, the listing of the Canada lynx as an endangered species in 2000, or the development of a local rural economy based on recreation rather than resource extraction.

The uproar got the attention of Governor Dave Freudenthal (D) and Senator Craig Thomas (R), who asked the Forest Service to put the brakes on the sale. "Maybe it's time to apply the carpenter's rule," said Freudenthal: "Measure twice and cut once." Last September, Forest Service officials said they would go back and update the environmental studies, but Sierra Club staff in the area think the drilling project has been pushed to the far back burner. As then–Club lobbyist Patricia Dowd put it, "Victories don't happen around Wyoming very often." But when they do, they're big 'uns. --P.R.

For the Record

"Kyoto is dead."
--National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice--now the top U.S. diplomat as secretary of state--in March 2001.

In November 2004, Russia ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. With Russia on board, the pact has enough participant countries to take effect, though it won't apply to the United States, because George W. Bush pulled out of Kyoto ratification talks early in his first term.

"You can put the Hummer in back and take it with you."
--Nick Matich, vice president of International Truck and Engine, on the company's new CXT ("commercial extreme truck"), the world's largest pickup.

Aimed at "kids over 20 who miss playing with trucks in the sandbox," the vehicle measures 9 feet high and 21.5 feet long. By comparison, the Hummer H2 is about 7 feet high and 17 feet long. The CXT is projected to get from six to ten miles per gallon of diesel fuel.

The ABCs of Sprawl

Like happy families, America's suburbs may all seem to be alike. But after reading A Field Guide to Sprawl, you'll never make that assumption again. Author Dolores Hayden, a Yale architecture professor, characterizes her new book as a "devil's dictionary" of bad suburban design--each named, defined, and illustrated. Among her subdivisions are Boomburbs (urban-size suburbs), Greenfields (suburbs developed on agricultural land), and Privatopias ('burbs governed by homeowners' associations).

The book's many aerial photographs provide a scope and perspective impossible to see during our daily travels. While some entries are humorous--homes with protruding garages are dubbed "snout houses"--Hayden's purpose is not just to entertain. By recognizing different building and growth patterns, and the signs of coming development, communities are better able to evaluate (and fight off) ill-conceived proposals. "Identification is crucial to action," Hayden writes. "By the time 'Going Out of Business' signs appear on family enterprises that have flourished for decades at a town green or on a local Main Street, it is usually too late for ordinary citizens to intervene." --Jennifer Hattam

Bold Strokes
Desert Largesse

For centuries, the San or Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert have relied on a rare plant called the hoodia. During the lean days of the hunt, they found, nibbling on a piece of hoodia can suppress hunger. More recently, scientists have discovered that a substance in the succulent, dubbed P57, tricks the brain into thinking that the belly is full.

In 1997 South Africa licensed the active ingredient in hoodia to the British firm Phytopharm, which later sold it to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The San appeared to be cut out of the bonanza altogether. But last summer South Africa passed the Biodiversity Act, which controls "bio-prospecting." Not only will it ensure that the hoodia is harvested sustainably, but it guarantees that indigenous communities that had original knowledge of the plant's properties will share in any future profits.

Reining in Road Hogs

In the United States you can get a major tax break for buying an enormous SUV, but Old Europe is moving in the opposite direction. SUV owners in Rome now pay three times as much as car owners for a permit to drive the city center's narrow streets--more than $1,100 a year. Paris is considering similar legislation. London's mayor hasn't banned the road hogs yet, but according to the Guardian, he has called them "bad for London" and their owners "complete idiots." --Marilyn Berlin Snell

This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.

10 Dumbest Consumer Goods

"Only ten?" OK, it was a tough choice. Some waste exorbitant amounts of energy, others turn precious natural resources into trivial junk, while still others encourage us to consume for the sake of consumption. Here then are ten of the sorriest ways to dispose of your disposable income:

  1. Talk 'n toss cell phones. Their inventor was inspired by wanting to toss her regular cell out her car window. Now she can! Upside: If they're littering the highways they won't clog up landfills.

  2. Leaf blowers. Using a leaf blower for half an hour is equivalent to driving a car 110 miles. And all it gets you is leaves on the other side of the driveway.

  3. Disposable DVDs. Disney and Flexplay are marketing DVDs that become unplayable 48 hours after the seal is broken. They can be mailed in for recycling, but would people who couldn't be bothered to mail in a rental really do so?

  4. Lunchables. Processed meat, fatty cheese, and crackers in an unrecyclable plastic tray, wrapped in more plastic and then cardboard. Kids deserve better.

  5. Disposable toilet cleaners. Instead of a brush that lasts for years, you can now spend a lot of money for flushable toilet brushes.

  6. Imported bottled water. Even if your tap water is undrinkable, your H20 doesn't have to be shipped in tiny bottles halfway around the globe.

  7. AOL CDs. The glut of 400 million unsolicited discs a year has inspired numero

    us recycling attempts. Beer coasters? Sushi platters? Mailbox reflectors? But trash they are and to trash they shall return.

  8. Swiffers. "You can just throw away the dust with the cloth!" exults the Web site for these rags-on-a-stick. Somehow it doesn't sound like progress.

  9. Disposable underwear. Disks of cloth with an adhesive that sticks directly to your pants. They even come in camo!

  10. The Hummer. Ostentatious energy waste as a reason for being. A special lifetime achievement award. --P.R.

Kids, Go Play in the Street!
Sharing the road makes everyone safer

A woonerf creates friendlier streets by making them more than racetracks for cars.
Imagine driving down a street with no traffic lights, stop signs, lane dividers, or sidewalks. Pedestrians, cyclists, and playing children wander about the road at will, and trees and flowers are planted in the right-of-way. How do you avoid hitting anyone—or anything? Simple. You slow down, maintain eye contact with people around you, and stay alert.

Some might see this dissolving of the boundary between street and sidewalk as an invitation to pure chaos. The Dutch call it a woonerf, and it works. Based on a set of design principles that emerged in the 1970s, woonerfs—or "living streets"—reject standardized traffic controls, which many drivers ignore or try to beat anyway, in favor of attractive urban designs that signal a multi-use public space. By introducing uncertainty into the driving experience, cars are forced to slow down and share the road. It sounds counterintuitive, but creating a more "dangerous" environment actually leads to heightened awareness that makes the street safer for everyone.

Located primarily in residential neighborhoods, woonerfs quickly spread to Denmark, Sweden, and Germany. In 1999, Great Britain adopted a "Home Zones" initiative—a modified version of a woonerf—as part of its national transportation policy.

Even in the land of the SUV, woonerf techniques have been applied in Brookline, Massachusetts, and West Palm Beach, Florida, as part of efforts to encourage foot traffic and revitalize neighborhoods. Woonerfs in the United States are too new to evaluate, but in Denmark and the UK, they have led to significant drops in accident rates. They also improve environmental quality by encouraging people to walk and bike instead of drive.

Ever-diminishing urban space is now forcing cities to think of streets as multipurpose conduits, says Michael Ronkin, bicycle and pedestrian manager at the Oregon Department of Transportation. "The woonerf and the shared street say, 'Let's go back to a time when streets were public space, instead of dedicated surfaces for automobiles.'" --Linda Baker


Flatter than the Average Bear

A record six bears were killed by vehicles in Yellowstone National Park last summer, including two female grizzlies and three black bear cubs. On average, one large animal (mostly deer or elk) is killed on Yellowstone's roads every day. Despite the increasing use elsewhere of animal crossings and traffic-management techniques to reduce roadkill (see "How Did the Grizzly Cross the Road?" July/August 2003), Yellowstone is widening its roads, which encourages high vehicle speeds, and allowing park gas stations to stay open 24 hours a day, making traffic a round-the-clock wildlife menace. "Yellowstone National Park appears to be managed more by a Department of Motor Vehicles than the National Park Service," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Frog-Marched Off Stage

University of California at Berkeley biology professor Tyrone Hayes ("Profile," July/August 2004) has been disinvited by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to be the keynote speaker at its annual conference in February. The agency pulled the plug on Hayes's speech after he refused to remove the words "atrazine" and "pesticide" from its title—even though that's what his research is about: Hayes is famous for linking the widely used weed-killer atrazine to deformities in frogs. "My response was, either you want [me] to talk or you don't," he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Under apparent pressure from the state's department of agriculture, conference organizers decided they didn't.

Blueberry Surprise

In October, Maine's largest blueberry grower agreed to stop aerial pesticide spraying, which was contaminating adjacent rivers and lakes. The move came in response to a threatened lawsuit by the Sierra Club's Maine Chapter and other local groups ("The Sierra Club Bulletin," November/December 2004).

For more news every weekday, visit

A Plague on All Houses
West Nile virus threatens wildlife as well as humans

As climate change warms the world, tropical diseases are spreading across North America. Five years ago, West Nile virus arrived in New York from Israel, probably in the form of a mosquito hitchhiking in the baggage compartment or cabin of an airplane. Last summer it took its first human victims on the West Coast, bringing the U.S. death toll to more than 450. Today it is found in 42 states, as well as Canada, Mexico, and Central America.

Humans are not the only creatures for whom a bite from a West Nile–infected mosquito can set off a chain of biological reactions leading to blindness, convulsions, brain damage, coma, tremors, and possibly death. At least 208 North American bird species are susceptible to it, as are 29 mammals and the North American alligator. Tens of thousands of birds have died from it already. The disease is transmitted when mosquitoes bite infected animals and then other animals or humans.

"We've got to understand the wildlife component of this disease if we're going to protect ourselves," says Peter Daszak, director of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine at Wildlife Trust in Palisades, New York. "West Nile is a bird disease spilling over onto humans. If we don't grasp how it moves through wild populations, we don't really understand it at all."

The disease's damage may soar if it reaches the habitats of vulnerable species of rare and endangered birds such as the Florida scrub jay, the Santa Cruz Island jay, or the Hawaiian crow. "Several birds in the Caribbean and in Central and South America could be at risk of extinction because of West Nile virus," says Peter Marra, a terrestrial ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland.

If the virus leaps to Hawaii, it could annihilate what remains of an extraordinary avifauna, already wiped out in the lower elevations by an earlier invasion of malarial mosquitoes. "West Nile could be catastrophic for Hawaii's remaining native species," says Jeff Burgett, an invasive-species specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the islands. There are only 50 remaining Hawaiian crows, for example, and corvids (like ravens, jays, and magpies) are extremely susceptible to West Nile. (Luckily, Hawaii's water birds are not at risk for the disease.)

Burgett has made it his priority to keep the virus out of Hawaii. "I realized that it was nonsensical to make recovery plans for these birds unless we're also doing something about West Nile," he says. In 2002, Burgett got the U.S. Postal Service to limit the sending of birds through the mail, closing one of two main avenues of infection. As for the other, however, he says that keeping mosquitoes off planes is close to impossible. The best he and his colleagues can do is develop a rapid-response program, so that if West Nile is detected they can cordon off the area and bombard it with pesticides—a less harsh alternative than the certain death sentence of West Nile virus. Problem is, no one knows whether it will work. "It's a game of odds," says Burgett. Even so, the costly programs will remain in place indefinitely—or until a successful invasion of the pathogen makes them moot.

West Nile is one of many emerging diseases that, as a result of human activities, have jumped the species barrier and spread beyond their ordinary range; others include HIV/AIDS, mad cow disease, monkeypox, and SARS. Some stem from contact with domestic animals, others from the handling and transport of wild animals. This increases stress, which makes them more susceptible to disease; global travel and commerce then spread pathogens. At the same time, habitat fragmentation and deforestation promote the spread of disease vectors like rodents and mosquitoes, while inhibiting the natural predators that would otherwise help keep these fast-reproducing species in check. The result is population explosions of disease-carrying species of mice, insects, and tick-bearing deer, which can lead to epidemics in areas increasingly co-occupied by humans.

(Unlike wildlife, humans can protect themselves from West Nile and other mosquito-borne diseases. The Centers for Disease Control recommend wearing long sleeves and long pants in the early morning and evening hours, draining sources of standing water around homes, and using insect repellent when the bugs are biting.)

On the U.S. mainland, West Nile virus is now a fact of life. It may become less virulent as immunities develop, but West Nile will never go away. It is so persistent and lives in such a broad range of organisms that it cannot be eradicated. The hot, humid environment essential for mosquitoes is likely to intensify in North America as human activity fuels a warmer and wetter climate. Inevitably, when weather, habitat conditions, hosts, and vectors line up, it will bloom again into localized epidemics, and wildlife as well as humans will pay the price. --Gordy Slack

Photos, from top: courtesy of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, courtesy of Julia Thomas/Transport 2000
Illustration by Debbie Dreschler

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